Omar: You ever get so excited over something that you miss the small details? Like Seeing Dear White People and leaving the theater thinking it was a good movie, but then realizing bit by bit days later it was actually a how-not-to-be-racist paint-by-number book for white people with every possible Black stereotype played out… but you already wrote your review praising it and now you gotta live with the weight of that hindsight? Yeah, that’s kinda where I am at with Miles Morales addressing the “Black Spider-Man moniker” in Spider-Man #2. I touched upon this lightly in the review I wrote for this issue (which I loved, no take-backs).
In the issue, we see a vlogger zoom in on footage of Miles’ battle-damaged suit during his fight with Blackheart. Through a large tear it’s evident that this new Spider-Man is a person of color. She is fan-girling over this HARD, as well as Thor, Sam Wilson, and other heroes that are now all over the Marvel Universe. Miles however, isn’t amused in the least. Miles is lookin’ at her video like Taye in the Dormtainment catfish sketch saying “no. All lowercase. Very small period.”
Miles moves the conversation to how he just wants to be Spider-Man, not Black Spider-Man. I was fucking with that statement because as a Black kid I’ve gone through that moment in my life. When I was pole-vautling for my high school team I was the only Black pole-vaulter in the school as well as the only Black vaulter at the track meets (thank God that didn’t last after my first season [Although I am the only Black person in my office]). As a Black person or person of color you WILL HAVE that moment of not wanting to be the “Black accountant” because it stays being a thing.
I thought Bendis’ handling of this was excellent per usual. We know this isn’t the end result and is leading to an eventual confrontation with this vlogger, either in his civilian identity as Miles Morales or as Spider-Man. Bendis is finally bringing the real-world backlash of fans’ reactions into the comics. I thought, “Yes. Go there. Get real with that shit.”
A friend of mine brought to my attention the backlash that Bendis received for having brought up the issue of race. Our conversation touched on whether there was a right or wrong answer for Bendis’ attempt. Again, keeping in mind that it hasn’t wrapped up yet. I went back to the panels and looked at what was actually being said, not just what I wanted to see. Yeah, I think I was wrong. Especially once I started talking about this with Thuli, I realized I was looking at the wrong view of what was being addressed.
Thuli: Listen, I like Miles Morales and have enjoyed reading him. Here, however, I feel Bendis is mixing issues and missing the mark. First: The vlogger is excited about representation; she is thrilled at the fact that Spider-man is a POC, like off-the-walls ecstatic. Representation man! Yes! And Miles’ response to that: Why does she care? Que sound of car coming to a screeching halt… Say what now?! Miles, why you missing the point here, why you talking like a white liberal? Yes, to be Black in this world means that you have at some point been looked down on by someone as ‘The Black _______’ (fill in the blank) as a way of demeaning you / your work, but, THAT IS NOT WHAT IS GOIN’ ON HERE. This woman is excited to see someone other than a white man as a superhero. Which, for me, makes Miles’ reaction inappropriate and entirely misplaced.
Foremost: Even if that were the issue here, I would still take exception. Miles saying I don’t want to be Black Spider-man I just want to Spider-Man is like President Barack Obama proclaiming: I don’t want to be The “First Black” President I just want to be The President. Hashtag never going to go down that way. With this response Bendis not only undermines the real need and desire for representation, he also just straight up acts like race is unimportant/irrelevant. The dismissal of race is classic white liberal rhetoric, it paints a world in which there is no problem and so, we never have to go through the uncomfortable process of reckoning with privilege or the hard work of finding solutions, it serves as a tool to maintain the status quo.
Why does race matter, they say, as their privilege affords them the bliss that is willful ignorance. A Black person, however, would not ask that question, because we know. We know all to well. Which is what bothers me so much about this. Bendis is hiding behind Miles, using him as a mouthpiece to push an agenda that not only does not serve the character or the community he comes from, it actually hurts it. And as if that isn’t enough, Bendis has Miles further distancing himself from his Blackness: “First of all I am half Hispanic,” he says. Yes, Miles is Afro-Latino. He can be, and is, fully both of those things, not less one or the other.
And look, I don’t think Bendis had any malicious intent here. If anything his treatment of this is, I imagine, well intentioned, but that is not enough. To quote V: I didn’t come for what you hoped to do, I came for what you did. So, intention aside, you have a Black hero who many POC read and love, who younger kids are looking up to, out here trivializing stuff as if he doesn’t know what it is to be Black in this world.
Now as Omar said earlier, this may not be all that is going to be said on the matter and I’ll be watching to see how he develops this story/unties this knot. I’m skeptical… but I am ready to be wrong.
I don’t believe you have to share the same race/gender/ethnicity/socio-economic status/etc. as a character in order to write them. However, if you are going to create a character different from you it is your responsibility to ensure that you do the necessary work and research to be able to write for that character. If the needs of the character exceed your ability to write for them, there is no shame in seeking help from people better skilled. It is in fact what you owe both the character and your readers.
Omar: I realized in hindsight where my fault lay. I thought I was seeing Bendis’ having Miles address race in the same way Dwayne McDuffie did with Green Lantern/John Stewart in his 2007 run of Justice League of America. I wanted to believe these were both one in the same when they actually weren’t. Dwayne McDuffie addressed years of the known-but-never-said-aloud-in-canon view of John Stewart just being the “Black Green Lantern” in just two panels (like a fucking boss).
McDuffie hits the nail in the coffin by having John state his opinion on the matter, without ignoring what was being said of him or dismissing his Blackness. McDuffie is almost breaking the 4th wall without breaking it. John is true to himself and we know the issue being discussed is one of race, but it’s handled in such a subtle way. This was done back in 2007 and nine years later this is an instance of McDuffie (a Black creator/person of color) taking it upon himself to write a stance on a Black character. Something we still aren’t seeing much of today.
Now if we take a look at the highlight reel there have been white writers that have handled the situation perfectly without beating the reader over the head with it, look at Kelly Sue’s telling of Penny’s past in Bitch Planet or Al Ewing’s work on Mighty Avengers in the interactions between Luke Cage and his father. It can be done, and done incredibly well. However, when it isn’t that becomes an issue with us as an audience because POC don’t have that many chances to have their story told. When it misses the mark, it impacts us that much more and we don’t know if that will ever get rectified, retconned, or revisited.
Thuli: What I really like about the way McDuffie handles this with John Stewart is that he doesn’t make him internalize the issues. He uses Hal to bring up the unspoken which allows John to be the source of the solution — he faces it directly and deals with it decisively. He squashes it right there and then, without acting like it isn’t happening or seeking to distance himself from his Blackness. McDuffie gives John the power.
And yes, Stewart has about 20 years on Morales so yeah, he’s lived through and dealt with a lot more and seen around more corners. It makes sense that he is more self-assured and self-aware. Still, having Miles internalize this issue bothers me, having him be the source of the problem makes it unlikely that he will be the source of the solution. More likely the solution will come from someone outside (hopefully not a well-meaning, world-wise white guy) and that gives the world the power, not him.
Omar: It will be interesting to see how this all does get resolved as Miles’ tenure as (despite what he may believe) The Spider-Man of the 6(16) continues. Bendis is an incredible writer that I’ve followed for years and this is the first time I’ve found myself at a cross roads putting me at odds with his work. Am I going to never read his work again? Nah. However, I am going to be more critical of his work in handling race as we move down the line. It’s important to not just accept a perspective that is given to you without questioning it or yourself, as you may find yourself rooting for a misrepresentation of what you thought was happening. Better to be sure of the work you are consuming and how it gets the job done or fails to do so.